Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Teachers and Educational Reform

This morning when I turned on my computer at school, there was an email from my blogging buddy, Rory. It's always nice when I find an email from a real person mixed in with all those stock tips and advertisements for Viagra and "male enhancement" products, and Rory's was especially welcome because he asked a great question. Rory wanted to know why high school teachers were not leading the charge for educational reform, since--as he put it--we are the ones who have to deal with the mistakes that are made with kids all the way up.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I have never viewed myself as having to clean up the mistakes of those who teach in elementary and middle schools. I have always viewed myself as being right in the trenches with them. They might make some mistakes, but so do I, and I know that elementary and middle school teachers work every bit as hard and are every bit as competent as high school teachers. Nevertheless, the heart of Rory's question is valid: why aren't high school teachers, or any teachers for that matter, more anxious to embrace educational reform.

Rory's question seems particularly valid after the response to my post asking for feedback from teachers on Direct Instruction. Joan Jacobs asked the same question over at her blog, and between us, we got over forty-five comments. Amazingly, the only people who expressed any reservations about Direct Instruction were teachers who, like me, had never been trained in it and never used it. The response from those who had used it was incredibly consistent: Direct Instruction works.

I told Rory in my reply that the high school teachers I know have not been advocates for reform because we have had so many reform models thrown at us that haven't made a dime's worth of difference. I think there have been some good aspects to some of the reforms we've been pushed into, and I've tried to adopt those aspects, but they've also had aspects that were totally ridiculous. We are required to change much of what we're doing, and about the time we make those changes, that reform gets dropped, and we are told to move on to the next one. Then we are supposed to change everything again. So any time an experienced teacher hears about another reform, it's hard not to want to roll your eyes and say, "Here we go again!"

The following is an excerpt from the book that I wrote. I hate not to be original, but I think this does a good job a expressing why so many teachers are so cynical about educational reform.

I first became aware of educational reform during the last week of my senior year in high school. Our Modern Problems teacher told us about a new program they were going to implement the following year called “modular scheduling.” Rather than consisting of the normal fifty-five-minute class periods we had always known, the school day would be divided up into twenty-minute mods. Instruction would be given in classes that would last either one mod (twenty minutes) or two mods (forty minutes). The students wouldn't be taking any more classes than we had been taking, so they would have a great deal of additional time to work on their own.

It didn't take the kids in our Modern Problems class long to figure out that, under this system, the students would all have the equivalent of two to three hours of study hall. I think the term the experts used was something like "independent study," but we knew better. And we also knew how we liked to spend our study hall time. Most of us used some of our study hall time to do homework, but we spent much of the time playing games such as Hangman. We all knew that the typical high school student would never use two to three hours of "independent study" time effectively.

Modular scheduling became the rage across the state of Minnesota in the early seventies, and some schools actually combined that idea with an "open campus," in which students could come and go as they pleased. Guess what most of them did with their independent study time then?

When I went to do my student teaching at a Minneapolis suburban high school four years after I'd first heard about modular scheduling, the faculty was voting to euthanize it. It wasn't long before modular scheduling went the way of the Edsel throughout the state of Minnesota. It seems very clear that, although the eighteen-year-olds in my graduating class could all figure out that modular scheduling was doomed to failure, the educational geniuses who guided policy couldn't.

While there are some teachers who are willing to become true believers in the latest reforms, many others, especially those with a fair amount of experience, have turned into lifetime reform-cynics. No field seems to breed as many acronyms as education, and our reform-cynics have their own batch. TYNT stands for “This Year's New Thing,” while LYNT stands for “Last Year's New Thing.” President Bush believes that his NCLB stands for “No Child Left Behind,” but our reform-cynics, who have seen reform after reform come and go, refer to it as “New Crap Like Before.”

It might sound terrible that teachers would be so cynical, but it's hard not to be. In the early 1990's, we were told that all schools in Minnesota would have to convert to outcome-based education. The old timers in our school said, "It'll never happen." They were right -- it never did.

A few years later we were going to convert to something called Minnesota's Profiles of Learning, which was inspired by the latest progressive reforms, and we spent hours and days in workshops listening to presenters expound on the wisdom of this new system. We were all supposed to design complicated project-type activities in which students would demonstrate mastery by "doing" something. We’d then rate those students on a one-to-four scale, rather than on the traditional A, B, C, D, F model. Do you understand that? Neither did we. And neither did the different presenters at those workshops. Rarely did we get the same answer to any one question that was asked to different presenters. "Never fear," our old-timers told us, "this too shall pass." Mercifully, it has.

Our state’s most recent stroke of educational reform genius is the Minnesota Academic Standards. This is more in the educational traditionalist mode, and it just proves that educational progressives don’t have a monopoly on bad ideas. When I learned what the Standards required for American history, it almost made me long for the days of the Profiles of Learning. The state now wants me to overwhelm my students with a massive amount of material -- something similar to what I did when I first began teaching American history. I quit teaching that way because it didn’t work very well. I figured out that trying to cover too much makes it impossible to go into depth about anything, and most students end up understanding and remembering very little. Nevertheless, the state of Minnesota wants me to go back to that. If I do what they are telling me to do, I’m afraid more than a few of my students won’t learn who we fought in the Revolutionary War. Oh, we’ll cover it all right, but we’ll have to rush through it because of the time I’ll have to spend doing things like explaining the differences between Mayan and Aztec architecture.

So that is my experience with educational reform. Nearly all of the reforms I've been exposed to have ended up with about 90% of the teachers I know saying, "What a bunch of B.S.!" I have never been exposed to a reform like DI where every teacher I've heard from says, "Yes, it's effective," or "Yes, it really does work."

I want people like Rory to know that I think the great majority of teachers would be enthusiastic about any reform that can actually help us to do our jobs more effectively. The reading that I've done and the teachers that I've heard from have made me believe that Direct Instruction is the real deal. But, at least in my experience, when it comes to educational reform, that makes it the exception and not the rule.


Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, if you want to know why education reforms almost never work read What Does it Mean to be a Research-Based Profession?

The typical reform that gets pushed down your throat is usually some education wonk's untested opinion.

The reason why DI is different is because it has a strong level 3 research base behind it unlike almost every other reform you've seen.

The article explains all this in detail.

2/21/2007 6:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Ken (?),

I haven't had time to read your article, but I will do that as soon as I'm done writing this comment. I suspect that I don't read quite as quickly as you do. I certainly don't write as quickly. I did want you to know that I have never had any doubt about this statement that you made: "The typical reform that gets pushed down your throat is usually some education wonk's untested opinion." I am no rocket scientist, but even I could figure that one out.

2/22/2007 3:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KDerosa, great article. It certainly fits with my experience. I do want to respond to this statement:

"An over-emphasis on individual teacher autonomy and creativity can undermine the development of a shared knowledge base. As Adam Urbanski said: 'Everyone seems to think that all you need to do to be a good teacher is to love to teach. But no one thinks that all you need to do to be a good surgeon is to love to cut.' Having teachers pick and choose instructional procedures according to personal preference, without any scientific information regarding the effectiveness of these procedures, is not likely to lead to significant improvements in the effectiveness of public education."

I think a lot of that desire for autonomy is a result of the "reforms" that have been thrown at us. I didn't have to be a teacher for very long in order to figure out that those "child-centered" strategies couldn't work very well. Give me a choice between winging it (trying things on a trial and error basis, going with things that work and throwing out things that don't) and going full scale with some strategy that defies common sense, and I will wing it every time. When you consider the "reform" alternatives that have been given to teachers, of course we're going to want our autonomy.

But every teacher I know want to be successful. I mean who wants to regularly go up in front of 25-30 people, even young children, and do things that don't work. If teachers can be shown things that they believe really have a chance of helping them to be successful, most of them will go with it. Anna, who commented on Joanne Jacobs site is a good example. She said she didn't like DI at first because it seemed to take away her creativity, but once she saw how well it worked, she became a convert.

2/22/2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Dennis, I concur wholeheartedly with what you wrote. My oldest was subjected to "whole language" debacle when she started school. Even now, I have teachers at my own school site talk about Direct Instruction derisively, making snide comments that it's not real teaching. They even gone so far to ask about the research. I always mention "Project Follow Through" and how it's the only method of teaching that has empirical research proving that it works.

I think too many teachers have been worn down by "the latest and greatest" pedagogy that after a while they become cynical. I think that this is especially true if you have been teaching for a long time. Veteran teachers have seen the pendulum swing several times in their careers as teachers. Is it any wonder that they remain cynical as they might see Direct Instruction as just another reform that won't work?

2/22/2007 6:21 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

I also agree, Dennis. When winging it works just as well as previous reforms, I can see why teachers prefer that. At at least they are doing what they want to do.

2/22/2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

It's not so much that teachers are doing what they want to do, KD; it's that they're doing what has worked or seemed to work.

2/23/2007 4:44 AM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

How about a link there Dennis.

Good post... I knew it was a good question, but I also knew it would be much better addressed by you.

2/23/2007 7:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Done! on the link, Rory. I apologize for not doing that in the first place.

2/24/2007 3:20 AM  

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